Last November our Vice President Rosemary Doyle recounted part 1 of a fascinating two-part story of a journey that she took in the 90s, starting on the Trans-Siberian Express. The other day we were treated to part 2 - Irkutsk (in Siberia) to Hong Kong
Rosemary, who is also our Club's Vice President, picked up her talk where she had left off - and, as before, showed lots of photos to illustrate her presentation.
After leaving Irkutsk, Rosemary and her travelling companion soon found themselves on the Trans-Manchurian train (no longer the Trans-Siberian train - this particular train travelled from Moscow to Beijing). She told us how the two travellers were looked after during their journey by a Swedish lady called Valentina (and showed a pictured), and she described how a lot of their journey was spent circling Lake Baikal, a huge lake in Russia. "It was a mini feat of engineering to get around the lake!” she recalled.
Unsurprisingly, they had a lot of snow at the start of their journey - but gradually the distant hills got much barer and the snow vanished. "It's the distance that is the most impressive thing," she said.
It took them two days to get to the Chinese border. Part way there they met an English girl with red hair and freckles. Apparently her husband loved steam trains and it was their third trip. They were staying with a railway policeman and the lady was doing a tapestry of the Royal Scot. Rosemary remembers they enjoyed a bottle of vodka together, made with water from the lake.
During the talk we learnt that Russian railways have a different gauge from the rest of the world - which meant Rosemary and her friend had to get off and go to the waiting room for lunch while the bogies were changed. However, the food wasn't particularly appetising! Rosemary and her friend opted for a hamburger and eggs; but they also bought "two bottles" - which they got through between the two of them!
The waiting room was full of smokers, so they opted to wait on the cold and dark platform. While there, they met a Siberian native - a trader. The friends had a lovely time chatting with her in limited Russian, German and some English!
The friends thought they would go to the Ladies' while at the station. "It was the only time in my life that I've been really glad for bad lighting," laughed Rosemary. Her friend chose to wait until China!
Rosemary joked that the main aim of the Chinese guards seemed to be to intimidate people - they demanded passports "now"! After handing over their passports she and her friend went to bed - only to be woken sharply to be given the passports back!
Rosemary reminded us that the previous Russian train canteen had been dreadful – despite a long menu, most of it was variations of pork. The food on the Chinese train on the other hand was much better. There were even green vegetables, which they hadn't seen for a while.
At the beginning they weren't allowed to get out of the train as the stations were near the border – but this changed at the journey progressed.
Eventually the pair arrived at Beijing; there they stayed at a hotel they later learnt was used for house arrests! But the at least the food was good – choices of Western or Chinese.
The two friends visited Tiananmen Square, where they found that "all" the Chinese wanted pictures of them! "It was a very interesting experience," said Rosemary; it was after the troubles at the Square "and you did feel as if you were walking on glass". They saw Chairman Mao's tomb and the entrance to the Forbidden City.
The next day they travelled to the Great Wall. As her friend declared she didn't like heights, they opted to travel by cable car - only to get ambushed by ladies wanting to sell guidebooks who accompanied them all the way! "I was quite grateful," said Rosemary, adding "the drop was very steep". The wall itself was "extraordinary" - the sheer length was impressive.
Next they went to see the Lama Temple - to see the trees and greenery was "just the most beautiful sight". Their visit to the Forbidden City was also extraordinary – although "we also had a Roger Moore voiceover guide," laughed Rosemary.
The friends enjoyed seeing human touches in the City - despite it hosting government offices. They met an elderly lady - possibly 95year+, and her grandson. She had bound feet -"she was a real relic from the past," said Rosemary - adding that the lady was very happy to be photographed!
The two friends also explored the back streets around Beijing - they even found a place with custard tarts ("the best in the World") which they had for breakfast with dim sum.
And so the journey soon came to and end - finally, the two friends travelled their final destination - Hong Kong! "Hope you enjoyed going on the journey with me," said Rosemary, before being met with a round of applause and a string of questions.
Picture: A view from the train towards Mongolia. Picture credit: Rosemary Doyle/Rotary Club of Canterbury.